'Bhopal' fears after fire at SA chemical plant

Environmental campaigners are warning of a "South African Bhopal" in the wake of a fire at a chemical plant near Cape Town last December. Community activists claim that the company responsible - a subsidiary of Anglo American Corporation - is refusing to pay fair compensation to the victims of the disaster.

A stockpile of 14,000 tons of sulphur caught fire at AECI's Somerset West Factory on 16 December last year when a veldt-fire swept across the plant. The sulphur burned for 20 hours and the resulting sulphur dioxide cloud quickly reached Macassar, two miles away. Two people, both asthma sufferers, died. Between 2,500 and 3,500 people were evacuated four hours after the blaze began, but over the next few days thousands of Macassar's 30,000 population received treatment for respiratory problems.

The cloud of toxic gas was so thick that managers of Cape Town airport, 22km away, considered closing it down, and vineyards 15-20km away were damaged. Many people mistook the smoke for tear gas. One woman interviewed shortly after said: "I coughed until my chest hurt, I ran to the tap to wash my face but the smell was too strong to be tear gas."

According to the South African Environmental Justice Networking Forum, compensation payments from AECI have so far been "completely arbitrary and unfair". The group says claims assessors are offering most people between R250 and R500 (pounds 40-pounds 80) in payments. "There is no independent attempt to put a price on things. They are just offering people money, and because of the poverty and the need for immediate cash, people are taking it ... People are getting totally different pay-outs for the same damage," said a forum spokesman.

Members of the local community are angry that some farming families have received millions of rand in compensation and accused AECI of racism.

AECI says the average pay-out is R700 (pounds 113) and that so far 4,500 out of an expected 8,000 claims have been settled. These claims are mostly for damage to gardens, curtains and carpets - which became saturated in the smoke - and for goods stolen during the evacuation. AECI says the claims were not arbitrary and that different payouts reflected varying degrees of damage and loss. "It is very difficult to generalise when you are dealing with 8,000 claims but there is a pattern."

Another, more important, point of contention is over medical compensation. The community want assurances that all medical costs incurred so far and possible future costs will be paid, but no medical settlement has yet been offered. They want a clinic set up in the township to monitor the long-term effects.

This is the first time a large number of people have been exposed to sulphur dioxide fumes at such close quarters, so doctors have no way of judging what the long term consequences might be. The Justice Networking Forum says that asthma sufferers are already becoming ill and many previously healthy people are beginning to develop asthma-like illnesses. There are also fears for the unborn children of women exposed to the smoke.

AECI says it does not anticipate any problems payinghealth care cost but wants the results of its health study before agreeing a figure. Already the community is casting doubt on the study, saying its requests to be involved have been refused. "It is far too restrictive, the terms are entirely set by them," said a forum spokesman.

Without taking longer term health costs into account, AECI's insurers expect to payout R25m (pounds 4m) in immediate damage claims.